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Tools for Identifying Historical-Cultural Context

To identify the historical-cultural context you need to (1) grasp the historical-cultural context of the book that contains your passage and (2) recognize the specific historical-cultural context of the passage itself.

Historical-Cultural Context of the Entire Book

As we have explained above, grasping the historical-cutural context of the entire book means finding out about the biblical author and audience as well as the general setting for the book. The following questions will help you get started:

  • Who was the author?
  • What was his background?
  • When did he write?
  • What was the nature of his ministry?
  • What kind of relationship did he have with the audience?
  • Why was he writing?
  • Who was the biblical audience?
  • What were their circumstances?
  • How was their relationship with God?
  • What kind of relationship did they have with each other?
  • What was happening at the time the book was written?
  • Are there any other historical-cultural factors that might shed light on the book?

To find answers to these questions, you need to become familiar with some basic tools. Since we cannot possibly list all the available resources, we will mention only a few of the most reliable ones for students at this level. To understand the historical-cultural context of the entire book, we suggest you consult Bible handbooks, introductions and surveys of the Old and New Testaments, and especially good commentaries.

Bible Handbooks

Bible handbooks usually begin with general articles about the Bible and the world of the Bible (e.g., the nature of Scripture, life in Bible times). They normally include a brief introduction to each book of the Bible and an equally brief running commentary on the entire biblical text. Articles on subjects of interest are interspersed throughout. You will probably want to go beyond what is provided by a Bible handbook, but they offer a good place to begin getting acquainted with the historical-cultural context of your book.

For example, if you are studying the book of James and decide to consult a Bible handbook, what can you expect to find? The introduction to James may include a concise discussion of the authorship of the book, the date of writing, the recipients, and the main themes. As you can tell from the example below, the commentary on the text is usually brief:

1:5–8 Wisdom

If we need wisdom (perhaps to handle various trials), we should ask God, trusting in his kind and generous character, and he will give us wisdom (1:5). If we doubt, however, we can be compared to a storm-tossed wave of the sea (1:6). Such an unstable, “double-minded” (lit. “double-souled”) person shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:7–8). The key to godly wisdom has always been a healthy fear of or trust in the Lord.

Old Testament and New Testament Introductions and Surveys

These resources supply detailed background information on each book of the Bible as well as an overview of the book’s contents. Usually they discuss authorship, date, recipients, situation, purpose, and more. Generally speaking, introductions offer more technical discussions of the background issues and spend less time on the actual content of the books, while surveys touch on background issues and focus more on content.

If you consult a survey of the New Testament looking for background information on the book of Revelation, for example, here is what you are likely to find:

  • definition of the term “revelation”
  • discussion of authorship
  • discussion of the two main options for the date of writing
  • discussion of the recipients and their situation
  • statement of the main theme or purpose of the book
  • description of the apocalyptic style of Revelation
  • explanation of the four main approaches to Revelation
  • summary of specific issues (e.g., rapture, millennium)
  • detailed outline of the book
  • overview of the contents of the book
  • bibliography for further reading

Commentaries

In most cases a good commentary will be your best bet for up-to-date, detailed information about the historical-cultural context of the book that contains your passage. For example, in Gordon Fee’s 462-page commentary on Philippians in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, he devotes more than fifty pages to introductory matters. He discusses ancient letter writing, the city of Philippi and its people, the situation of the church, the situation of Paul, the argument or thought flow of the letter, and theological themes. He also provides a detailed outline of the book. By the time you finish the entire discussion, you will have a good sense of the historical-cultural context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Because commentaries are always written from a particular point of view and since they differ in quality and scope, it is always a good idea to consult more than one commentary.

Historical-Cultural Context of the Passage Itself

After you have a good sense of the background of the book that contains your passage, you need to identify the historical-cultural context of the passage itself. This involves examining any elements of history and culture that are connected to or mentioned in the passage (e.g., geography, politics, religion, economics, family life, social customs). To accomplish this, we recommend using Bible atlases, Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias, commentaries, background commentaries, Old and New Testament histories, and special studies on ancient life and culture.

Bible Atlases

If you want to learn more about the people, places, and events mentioned in your passage, take a look at a Bible atlas. You will find colorful maps of the land, pictures of many of the important sites, helpful charts of political and religious leaders, discussions of the various periods of biblical history, and more.

Let’s say that you want to study the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, a week commonly known as Passion Week. You will need a map of Jerusalem during the New Testament period so that you can see where many of these significant events took place. A good Bible atlas will include such a map.

Do you see the Mount of Olives, the place from which Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Can you locate the traditional site of the upper room, where Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples on Thursday night? Where is the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and was later arrested? If you want to know where the Jewish and Roman rulers tried Jesus, you can see many of the traditional locations on the map (e.g., the house of the high priest). You can also find the traditional site outside the city walls where Jesus was crucified (i.e., Golgotha).

Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

This is the place to go when you need information about a particular topic mentioned in your passage. For instance, if you want to know more about the garden of Gethsemane, consult a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. These resources cover a full range of biblical topics and arrange the topics alphabetically. All you have to do is turn to “Gethsemane” and read. Here is a sample of the kind of information you will find:

Gethsemane (PLACE) [GK Gethsemani]. Garden located E of the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem (John 18:1), on the slopes of the Mount of Olives (Matt 26:30; Luke 22:39). Jesus often went to Gethsemane in order to rest, pray, and find fellowship with his disciples (Luke 21:37, 22:39; John 18:2). After celebrating the Passover with his disciples for the last time, Jesus went to pray in Gethsemane, where he was later betrayed by Judas Iscariot (Matt 26:36–56; Mark 14:32–52; Luke 22:39–53; John 18:1–12).

The name Gethsemane derives from Hebrew and Aramaic words for “oil press.” Presumably Gethsemane consisted of an olive orchard and an oil press to squeeze oil from the olives, both of which were common on the Mount of Olives…. It may have been a walled garden since John describes Jesus and the disciples as having entered it. From John’s account we derive the traditional name of the “garden of Gethsemane.” The garden must have been fairly large because Jesus led Peter, James, and John away from the rest of the disciples . . . and later Jesus withdrew further in order to pray alone. . . .

In Gethsemane, Jesus warned his disciples several times to watch and pray against entering into temptation (Matt 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:40, 46). Jesus understood his own agonizing time of prayer as a time of temptation from completing the sacrificial will of God…. He prayed three times for deliverance (Mark 14:32–42)…. Jesus won the spiritual battle and faithfully met his betrayer in the garden (John 18:1–11)…. Reminiscent of Gethsemane, Heb 5:7–8 ref lects upon the prayers and supplications Jesus made with loud cries and tears. As a result of his godly fear and obedience, Jesus was made perfect and became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. . . .

Early Christians conceived of Gethsemane as analogous to the garden of Eden in the divine plan for human redemption. The sinful actions of the first Adam are contrasted with the prayerful obedience of the second Adam—Jesus Christ.

Commentaries

We mention commentaries again because the good ones are also extremely helpful in shedding light on background matters within your passage. Do you recall Paul’s harsh words for the Corinthian Christians regarding their practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Here is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:17–22:

17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

A good commentary will do what Craig Blomberg does in his commentary on 1 Corinthians—it will clarify the meaning of the passage by summarizing the historical-cultural context.

The minority of well-to-do believers (1:26), including the major financial supporters and owners of the homes in which the believers met, would have had the leisure-time and resources to arrive earlier and bring larger quantities and finer food than the rest of the congregation. Following the practice of hosting festive gatherings in ancient Corinth, they would have quickly filled the small private dining room. Latecomers (the majority, who probably had to finish work before coming on Saturday or Sunday evening—there was as of yet no legalized day off in the Roman empire) would be seated separately in the adjacent atrium or courtyard. Those that could not afford to bring a full meal, or a very good one, did not have the opportunity to share with the rest in the way that Christian unity demanded…. The result of the lack of consideration by the wealthy for the less well-to-do implies that they are not celebrating the Lord’s Supper at all, merely “their own supper.”

Background Commentaries

This relatively new type of commentary focuses not on the meaning of each passage, but on historical-cultural background essential to grasping the meaning. Background commentaries are helpful because they provide a wealth of information conveniently arranged in a verse-by-verse format. As you study Jesus’ teaching on nonresistance in Matthew 5, you will come across the statement: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (v. 40). Keener’s background commentary offers the following insight into the context of the passage:

The poorest people of the Empire (e.g., most peasants in Egypt) had only an inner and outer garment, and the theft of a cloak would lead to legal recourse. Although conditions in first-century Palestine were not quite that bad, this verse could indicate divestiture of all one’s possessions, even (*hyperbolically) one’s clothes, to avoid a legal dispute affecting only oneself. Jesus gives this advice in spite of the fact that, under Jewish law, a legal case to regain one’s cloak would have been foolproof: a creditor could not take a poor person’s outer cloak, which might serve as one’s only blanket at night as well as a coat (Ex 22:26–27).

Old Testament and New Testament Histories

Histories are most useful when you want detailed background information on particular topics within your passage. You can usually locate the discussion by looking up a key word in the index. If you are examining 1 Peter 4:9 (“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling”), you might consult a New Testament history to learn more about hospitality in the first-century world. Here is what one such history tells us about the motels of the first-century world and the resulting need for hospitality among Christians:

The traveler was not so fortunate in the accommodations for the night as he was in the quality of the roads on which he traveled by day. Not that inns were lacking, but their reputation (in quality and morals) was notorious. The wine was often adulterated (or after the patron was drunk on good wine, bad was substituted), sleeping quarters were filthy and insect and rodent infested, innkeepers were extortionate, thieves were in wait, government spies were listening, and many were nothing more than brothels…. There were some excellent inns in Italy, but they seem to have been the exception. The upper classes avoided the public accommodations and stayed with friends when they traveled. The moral dangers at the inns made hospitality an important virtue in early Christianity. Hospitality occupies a prominent place in Christian literature (Rom. 16:23; 1 Pet. 4:9; 2 John 10; 3 John 5–8; Heb. 13:2; 1 Clement 10–12; Didache 11–13) because of the needs of missionaries and messengers of the churches and other Christians who happened to be traveling. The churches provided an extended family, giving lodging and assistance for the journey.

Special Studies in Ancient Life and Culture

These resources provide detailed discussions on selected topics. They can be helpful when you really want to dig deep on a particular topic. You can find articles on biblical cities, social life, legal matters, religious practices, warfare, economic life, and a host of other topics. These special studies are similar to Bible dictionaries, but are more narrowly focused. As with many of these resources, go first to the index to locate their treatment of the topic.

Computer Software and the Internet

You will be able to find some of the resources we have mentioned above in electronic format. We encourage you to take full advantage of computer software packages that include the best resources. Often the convenience and price are hard to beat. But remember that you are after the best tools, not simply the least expensive deal. You can use the bibliography of resources throughout this unit to evaluate the various electronic resources.

You need to be much more cautious about Internet resources. This is a rapidly changing environment that has not traditionally represented the best in biblical scholarship. While the Internet is certainly convenient, you don’t always know whether you are getting reliable information. We recommend that you stick with resources by well-known and respected authors.


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